November 1995

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Election Stories

Including Granddad's Pole


Robert V. Anderson

Consider the trade of the politician: To be high minded about it we may say that given the talent, you have a public duty to lead the people. That immediately splits the population into them and us, or upper and lower classes. The ritual act of voting connects us and any rascal who may be voted in, or voted out, although it takes a while to rectify the error.

The general rule seems to be that the higher the office the harder to get into it, but the harder to be displaced.

In the United States most of us exist removed from personal participation in these power struggles. If you move into an area and think you should do your duty voting (it takes a fair amount of indoctrination to form a voting habit) the local party people will be delighted to recommend their candidates. The local editor may also recommend, but the person who shakes your hand and inquires about your problems may very well get your vote. How we vote probably depends more on contact with real persons than on high-priced promotion. It is far more real to know personally the party people and the office holders.

The right to vote in political processes as distinct from the right to vote as stockholders, which is associated with ownership, has a geographical base that probably dates back to membership in primitive tribes and the control of territory. A place of residence as a credential to vote is taken for granted. To be legal you should live within the jurisdiction. But consider how to interpret this requirement.

We would now condemn the "voting train" to be illegal, but when it ran, it was looked upon as clever or only sharp practice. As the story goes the train started on voting day from Albany with a load of men (this was before the female vote had "Purficated the Process") who had already voted in Albany when the polls had opened. The train proceeded up the Mohawk Valley and the party men voted at the selected spots to help swing the election. There was no law against the riders voting since they only had to be inside the jurisdiction to vote and they were when they voted. The opposition could holler about it, but had no legal basis to have the votes excluded. The polls did close on time and at the last stop only the riders who could cram into the voting place could vote—that was the law—suddenly "within the jurisdiction" became a very small space. The practice of riding a train and voting in several places was legislated away with a requirement for a certain period of residency before voting.

There is a story of a man in Steuben County who was very loyal to his party and would always vote in the town where his party most needed his vote, that is, the town where his party would pay him the most for his expenses. He did practise a sort of tribal loyalty by always voting for the same party. One year he had such a firm attachment to his party that he voted in two towns; they needed him and he tried to oblige. It tired out his horse but he got over the hills before the polls closed.

Some said the money tempted him beyond his strength and he fell into error. Party members justified him on the grounds of pure party patriotism. However, the opposition party lost the election in both towns and was annoyed. They claimed a one head rule should apply, and John, not his real name, just a very common one, was pressured into voting only once after that.

Now, the one head, one vote rule is used in a different sense, that of population representation as in the House of Representatives, not area representation, as in the United States Senate.

The one vote rule limits an elector to voting in only one jurisdiction. In which town should he vote, where he lives? or where he owns property? and where, when he owns property in several and pays taxes in each?

A neighbor of ours on Keuka Lake anticipated becoming a permanent resident and wondered where he should vote. His house was in Wayne, but his garage and most of his property were in Urbana. Fortunately he married a lady who lived definitely in one town, so they lived and voted there.

A court ruled that your voting right exists where your bed is. If your house straddles a jurisdictional line, suppose your wife decides to move your bed to another room or even just across the bedroom. An actual instance of this occurred when a man and his wife from adjacent towns each wanted to remain loyal to their town. They deliberately built their house so that the town line ran down the middle of their bed and each could sleep in their chosen town.

The paper ballot, although an improvement on a raised hand or the loudest holler, was also subject to rigging. Voters were subjected to intimidation techniques like different colored ballots for the different parties or the threat of calling in a mortgage, really twisting your arm. One tale in which all parties seemed to be satisfied involved allowing the town idiot to vote and the election official to fish out and destroy his ballot. The person felt that he had voted as everyone else had, and the other voters were relieved that it had no effect.

Even in the age of the voting machine various shenanagins may occur. Not too many years ago in one district voting place a poll watcher sat on a balcony and viewed the face of the machine through a mirror. This way the politician could verify a straight-party vote and pay the voter when he or she had left.

In my own immediate family, Grandpa T. was the politician. His mother was Irish; that may have had something to do with his inclinations. He was always small time and only held an elective office when he lived on the farm, that of Justice of the Peace. When he moved back into the city he became the Democrat committeeman for his district.

My two grandfathers lived in adjacent houses. On election day a small family ceremony took place. That morning they met out front and walked down to the voting place, marching in time on the echoing slate sidewalks. When they arrived Grandpa T. unlocked the room and entered while Grandpa H. waited outside. At the legal time Grandpa T. emerged to proclaim the polls open, and Grandpa H. entered to be the first voter.

I never heard that any money changed hands, but Grandpa T. was said to always hope for plenty of Tammany money to come to him to use in his district. In those days it was said a vote could be purchased for fifty cents. This was frowned on enough to be made illegal. Never the less, patronage could be practiced. One result of that attitude was that my mother could work at the polls, and be paid for it. Probably she received government money plus some from the party. So patronage of this type had influence on the vote. A large family of potential voters might expect some member to have a position at the polls.

One year my aunt and I received party money for working the election. The neighbor next door was the Republican committeeman, and the Democratic committeewoman was a friend. My aunt phoned voters of both parties and I drove a car to take registered voters to the polls and home again.

Sharp practice, not necessarily specifically illegal, will probably always be a feature of government activity. An item in the past does worry me though, since it concerns the adoption of the Federal Constitution. Supposedly when the New York electors met to vote for ratification of the Constitution some of the electors had been given wrong travel information and did not arrive until after the vote to ratify had been taken. Was there sharp practice, and have we been out of the United States all these years without knowing it?

Here is a story about early electioneering told to me many years ago by Nancy Maude Longwell, Dryden's wife. I call it "Granddad's Pole." It took place in Bradford in Steuben County.

Granddad was almost certainly an Axtell, but may have been Nancy's great grandfather rather than her grandfather.

To raise a pole at election time would seem to follow the pattern of the Revolutionary Liberty Poles. It showed patriotism and partisan affiliation. Naturally, Democrats raised a hickory for "Old Hickory" and the opposition (whether Whig or Republican) raised a pine pole. The time must have been before the control of city governments by the Democrats had caused the farmers to come to distrust the Democrats. A large number of farmers had been Democrats. However, Nancy seems to have not known which tree Granddad used.

When a party made a show of strength by joining together to have a torch light procession, a pole attached upright to a wagon might be a part of the parade, but Granddad always raised his own pole in his front yard where any passerby could confirm Granddad's affiliation. This made a tempting target for the opposition, and Granddad regularly lost his pole each year. The raid normally was held after dark when a fair-sized gang would quickly get possession of the pole by pulling it up, chopping or sawing it down, and then carting it away.

Naturally, Granddad warded this off as well as he was able. This is the story of his final effort. That year when the early apples had been picked and some cider was hardening in the cellar he had a free-from-other-work day and went to scan his woodlot for a proper tree. Finding one five or six inches through at the base and growing straight up, he unshipped the axe and commenced to chop.

By noon he had felled the tree and limbed it out (an expression which may date back to the New York Dutch). The bark was left on for better identification. With the help of dog and horse he twitched the pole into his front yard.

He bolted down some food paying no attention to Grandma's recriminations of wasted labor when so much else had to be done. Then he picked a spot where the grass had not been scythed and with crowbar, pick and shovel began to dig. He went down a good three feet and being hot and tired, visited the cellar to replace lost liquid.

Much refreshed, he used a rope tied to the top of the pole and to his horse to raise it. He managed to drop the butt into the hole and steady it in an upright position with the assortment of rocks he had taken from the excavation.

One of the characteristics of that piece of land was you could only fill a hole up again if you threw back in all the rocks you had taken out, plus others. Then he added dirt and carried pails of water to wet it down and cause the dirt to settle around the rocks. He then tamped it down. After filling and tamping for a couple of hours he guyed the pole four ways to be sure it was secure.

Turning his mind then to protective measures he introduced the dog to the pole just in case the dog had not realized the pole was a part of the family property under his care. Granddad even arranged a few trip-ups at strategic spots to waylay prowlers.

When he went upstairs to bed in the front bedroom Granddad broke a long-standing practice by leaving the window wide open to the dangerous night air. The night was calm and pleasantly warm. Master and dog slept undisturbed. Around cockcrow Granddad awoke, well rested and relieved that there had been no alarms in the night. He looked out the window to feast his eyes on his pole. It was gone!

He rubbed his eyes and looked again; it was still gone! Then he hurried barefoot downstairs and out into the yard where the stub showed clear evidence—someone had used a brace and bit to bore away the wood, then cut the guys and silently cart the pole away.

Later after he had duly reprimanded the dog, he hitched up and visited the wood piles of several neighbors, but Granddad never did recover that pole. We infer he never raised another pole.

© 1995, Robert V. Anderson
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